By STEVEN ERLANGEROCT. 23, 2014
LONDON — The young Western Muslims trying to join radical Islamist groups in Syria and Iraq now include increasing numbers of young women who are seeking to fight or to become the wives of fighters. It is a new twist on a recruitment effort that has led to several thousand men from Europe and beyond flocking to the battlefield.
In the past week alone, the authorities reported two instances of women and girls trying to get to Syria or take part in jihad. On Wednesday, the British police arrested a 25-year-old woman north of London on suspicion of preparing “terrorist acts” related to the fighting in Syria. Over the weekend, three teenage girls from the Denver suburbs — two sisters of Somali descent and a friend of Sudanese descent — were intercepted as they tried to travel to Syria.
Those were the latest in a series of cases of young Muslim women from the West trying to join militant groups like the Nusra Front or the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL, which is waging a campaign to create a caliphate in Iraq and Syria. The largest numbers of recruits have come from France and Britain, but others have come from Austria, Belgium and Spain.
For several months, the Islamic State has been making a concerted effort to enlist women and girls. It is deploying female recruiters, producing new publications and creating online forums.
The precise number of women seeking to join the groups is unclear, but some analysts estimate that roughly 10 percent of recruits from the West are women, often influenced by social media networks that offer advice, tips and even logistical support for travel. These networks often portray life under the caliphate as a kind of Islamic paradise that offers a religious alternative to what can often be a second-class life of struggle and alienation in the West.
While some women are attracted to the idea of marrying a fighter, others “are joining I.S. because it provides a new utopian politics, participating in jihad and being part of the creation of a new Islamic state,” said Katherine E. Brown, a lecturer in defense studies at King’s College London who studies the phenomenon.
She cited images on social media of female recruits cooking, chatting, caring for children and meeting for coffee. At the same time, there are images of women carrying automatic rifles, wearing suicide belts and even displaying severed heads.
The “combination of violence and domesticity” is important, Ms. Brown said, adding that the women were politically engaged and often felt alienated by Western life, mores and politics.
Just 10 days ago, an all-woman jihadist group calling itself Al Zawraa announced its establishment on the Internet, saying that it sought to prepare women for jihad by teaching them Shariah, weapons use, social media and other online tools, first aid, sewing and cooking for male fighters (“the heroes of the religion”). Al Zawraa appears to be affiliated with the pro-Islamic State group Al Minbar Jihadi Media Network, according to SITE Intelligence Group, which monitors extremist activities.
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Historically, women make up about 25 percent of the members of terrorist organizations as diverse as the Irish Republican Army, Chechen fighters and the Tamil Tigers, Ms. Brown said. But in the case of the Nusra Front and the Islamic State, the figure is about 10 percent, more in line with the gender makeup of far-right movements, she added.
Over the past two years, “a maximum of 200 women” have traveled to Syria or Iraq from Europe, she said. At least a quarter of those women traveled with members of their families — husbands, brothers or fathers.
While figures vary, at least 60 of the women are believed to be British, and more than 70 are French. A majority are thought to be 18 to 25 years old.
Kamaldeep Bhui, a professor of cultural psychiatry and epidemiology at Queen Mary University of London, said that young Muslim women were as likely to be radicalized as men. “There is an increasing epidemic of girls” wanting to join jihad, he said at a briefing organized by the Science Media Center in London.
He found that women with the highest risk of radicalization were most angry about injustice and most tolerant of even violent forms of protest against it.
“The group who sympathized were younger, in full-time education” and more middle-class, Professor Bhui said. “They were more likely to be depressed and socially isolated.”
Recent migrants who were poorer and busier were less likely to have radical sympathies, he said, in part because they remembered the problems of their homelands.
Dounia Bouzar, a French anthropologist, is the founder of the Center for the Prevention of Sectarian Excesses Linked to Islam. In most cases, she found, young women who seek jihad do not come from particularly religious families but are good students who want to go to Syria to marry a devout Muslim or provide humanitarian aid.
“There is a mix of indoctrination and seduction,” Ms. Bouzar said. “They upload photos of bearded Prince Charmings on Facebook.”
The propaganda and messaging of the Islamic State is positive, a contrast to the negative message coming from anxious governments, Ms. Brown of King’s College London said. “The Islamic State offers a positive image and says: ‘You’re welcome here. Come join us in the formation of an ideal state.’ But from Western governments, it’s very negative, so they feel demonized constantly and alienated.”
Some of the British women are reportedly running a sort of all-female religious police force to monitor un-Islamic behavior in Raqqa, a Syrian city held by the Islamic State. Other women have been posting on Twitter images of food, restaurants and sunsets clearly intended to lure more recruits.
In Colorado, friends and relatives of the three teenagers who were detained over the weekend were struggling to understand why, according to federal officials, they left the Denver suburbs to join Islamic State fighters in Syria. Last Friday, the two sisters stayed home from school and told their father that they were heading to the library. The parents soon discovered that the girls were gone, with their passports and $2,000 in cash.
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The reality of life inside the radical groups is often different, of course, from the cheerful images on screens. The Islamic State is run by men and is strictly patriarchal, with recruits separated by sex.
Ms. Bouzar said some young women had found themselves confined to the home. “Some see the massacres, the bombs, and understand that they’ve been had,” she said.
Others, Ms. Brown pointed out, “find that life there is as mundane as in Birmingham or Glasgow — except for the electricity blackouts and communal toilets and beheadings.”
Once inside Syria, they are married off to jihadists. Several who have tried to return have found themselves prisoners, analysts said. They are forced to wear head-to-toe robes with a niqab, a head scarf that covers the face.
According to numerous interviews with Islamic State fighters in Iraq and Syria over electronic services including email and Skype, women play an important role, with wives — Syrian, Iraqi or foreign — often accompanying their husbands as they move from post to post. Married fighters receive higher pay and holiday bonuses, members say.
There have been cases of men taking multiple wives, as well as accounts of rape, of forced marriage and of women sold into slavery. In an article in Foreign Policy, Aki Peritz and Tara Maller wrote that male jihadists were “committing horrific sexual violence on a seemingly industrial scale,” citing reports from the United Nations and Amnesty International.
The Syrian government has long said that women are being recruited for “jihad al-niqah,” or “sex jihad,” as some sheikhs argue that it is religiously permitted to have sex with fighters to help them in their duties. Several female Islamic State supporters said that was a myth, and that women were joining the group to provide substantive help such as medical treatment, social media advice and cooking.
“I know some sisters who emigrated to Syria a couple of times to help the holy warriors,” said Umm Fatimah, a Tunisian woman who said she hoped to join two brothers fighting with the group. “And not for jihad al-niqah.”
The family of one young French girl in Syria, Nora el-Bathy, 15, said she was desperate to come home. Her brother, Fouad, said that she had expected to work in a hospital but that instead she was babysitting the children of jihadists.
The family, which lives in Avignon in the south of France, had no idea that she had become radicalized, or that she would leave her home dressed as usual, only to change into a full-length covering on the way to school.
“We were completely unaware,” said Fouad, who has since seen pictures of Nora fully veiled that were taken by her friends. “We did not know that she had a double life.”
Reporting was contributed by Suzanne Daley and Rukmini Callimachi from New York; Jack Healy from Denver; Maïa de la Baume from Paris; Ben Hubbard from Cairo; Hwaida Saad and Anne Barnard from Beirut, Lebanon; and Alan Cowell and Kimiko de Freytas-Tamura from London.